“I’m sorry, but I have to take this call…Mary will tell you more about why.”
We were in the middle of our client review, when Jeff hurriedly excused himself to the lobby. I looked over to Mary and said that I didn’t need to know the details, but hoped everything was okay.
“Oh, everything’s fine…or it will be fine…because of Jeff.”
Jeff and Mary had been retired for a few years. After running, growing, and then selling their business, they spent their time enjoying their community, their family, and each other. On all counts, retirement had been fulfilling. But it was about to get even more so.
In the wake of the fall of Kabul and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, an estimated +75,000 Afghan Refugees have come to the US. The displaced families, who have minimal financial assistance, are largely dependent on US residents and organizations for help.
Jeff and Mary* were some of the first to sign up.
Since then, their days have been full. Jeff and Mary arrange for transportation, housing, and basic needs. They work to connect the family with employers and a community. They help navigate the immigration system and everyday life in the midst of cultural and language obstacles. And any chance they get, they reach out to their network to raise up additional funds and volunteers.
Their days have been “full” in other ways too, because they have been able to give out of their own “gifting”. Jeff and Mary’s years as business owners and entrepreneurs made them especially suited to map out the complex healthcare, employment, and immigration systems. Their willingness to live within their means has enabled them to be generous financially. And their loving hearts and seemingly effortless gift of hospitality have made this family feel incredibly welcome. I’d call those full and fulfilling days.
Living with Intention
Having a “full” day in retirement runs counter to what most people might dream up. You could go to a retirement party and hear the guest of honor declare, “I don’t want anything on my schedule”, throw their day planner in the trash can, and everyone in attendance (including me) would raise a glass and cheer.
I’m far from retired, but when I open up my “Surprise Joys” journal for the last year and look back at my best days, they aren’t the ones where I had nothing on the calendar. They are the days when I lived with intention…and our most-fulfilled retirees tend to agree.
For me, sometimes my intention has been to vacation, reading on the beach with my wife. I’ve filled up other “best days” on a basketball court (where I have absolutely no business) happily giving in to my 8th grader’s request to coach her team. And it would really disappoint “18 year-old Justin” to hear that I also really loved the days I spent planning out and building new garden boxes and a fenced enclosure.
Often, my best days come when I’ve had the intention of being available and using my gifts in a way that benefits others. Like on December 20th, amid the Christmas rush, when a friend took me up on the offer I had made the previous week. I said I would pick up a used dresser in my truck and take it over (coincidentally) to a different Afghan family.
But now, by the time they asked me, my Christmas to-do list had grown to a mile long. So I grumbled a bit inwardly…then finally came to my senses. I packed up our equally grumpy 8-year-old, Everett, and the dresser and drove over to meet the family. The father opened the door to their sparsely decorated apartment, face beaming, and gave both of us warm hugs. Then their young son ran over to do the same. We grabbed the dresser, exchanged a few words, then Everett and I went on our way. The “best day” part came in the truck, when we talked about what the family is going through and what it means to love our neighbor. Everett seemed to take it all in, said he was really glad he came, and then we proceeded to talk about nothing…and everything.
If You’re Working, Try Some “Retirement” Now
I believe the overwhelming reason that many retirees are hesitant to take on “full” days like Jeff and Mary’s, is that they’ve had 40+ years of “busy” days and they are ready for a break. But we shouldn’t confuse “committing to the people and things that give you life” with “having a never-ending to-do list.”
The best way to prepare for a fulfilling retirement is to start getting glimpses of it now, while you work. Instead of waiting until you are 65 to have a hobby, or to take that vacation, or to find that community of friends, or an organization that needs you – do it now! Our most fulfilled retirees are typically the ones who live more balanced and intentional lives in the years leading up to retirement. In this way, retirement doesn’t feel so much like a long-awaited sweet relief, but rather, a time to keep doing life – just with a bit more freedom.
If You’re Retired, Do So With Intention
For retirees, I’d encourage you to grab that day planner out of the trash and chart out your days, weeks, and months with intention. Either proactively planning ahead or at least keeping track of your days as you live them. Consider seeing your future through the lens of three categories: Work, Relationships, and Self (knowing there is plenty of overlap) and mark a W, R, or S on the days you did something in one of those areas:
- Work: This doesn’t mean earning a paycheck (though it could.) Like Jeff and Mary, it means using your talents to benefit others that you care about. We have clients who volunteer to read in classrooms, sign up to take care of their grandkids regularly, consult as an expert witness, help their kids remodel a house, raise funds for nonprofits, or serve meals to those in need. The important part is that this work won’t feel like “work” if it is within your skillset and benefits people or things you care about.
- Relationships: I would divide this up into two parts: being part of a larger community and being intentional with your close relationships. For the larger community, we’ve seen clients thrive in joining civic clubs, pickleball leagues (let me know if you want to play, I have my own paddle), or even shared interest groups online. For close relationships, it is important to invest in spending time with your spouse, family, or close friends. This might look like family vacations, couples counseling, book clubs, or regular phone calls.
- Self: This will look different for everyone and it only needs to make sense to one person: you! For some clients, this has meant learning a new language with their Italian “pen pal”, rediscovering painting, enrolling in a cooking class, writing a memoir, booking that dream trip to Argentina or Greece, or focusing on their health. If it makes you feel restored and joyful, then make time for it and give yourself permission to do it.
Decide Today, What Kind of Old Person You Want to Be
My favorite advice comes from my mentor, friend, business partner, and dad, Jonathan. For as long as I can remember, but more so in recent years, he’s been encouraging our clients, both young and old, to “Decide today, what kind of old person you want to be.” For my parents, it has been a continuous decision that always starts “today”…which means it is never too late.
In recent years, I’ve seen my parents say “no” to plenty, so that they can say “yes” to what is most important. They’ve decided that they want to be the type of “old people”, one day, who enjoy Broadway shows, continue helping clients plan for their futures, spend summers at the lake pulling grandkids skiing and reading books, go to Bible studies, celebrate their kids and grandkids, collect food for the hungry, and have meaningful close friendships. So they’re doing those things now. I’m biased, but I think they have what it takes to be some great “old people” one day.
A couple of months ago, they bought a golf cart and promptly decked it out with Christmas lights and a wreath. When I asked Jonathan why, he simply said, “Well, all the young families in our neighborhood were getting them and I decided that I want to be the type of old person (wink) who drives his grandkids too fast on a golf cart!” That’s a good enough reason for me.
So…what kind of “old person” would you like to be one day?